Terms of Endearment

Critics Consensus

A classic tearjerker, Terms of Endearment isn't shy about reaching for the heartstrings -- but is so well-acted and smartly scripted that it's almost impossible to resist.



Total Count: 43


Audience Score

User Ratings: 36,261
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Movie Info

Terms of Endearment covers three decades in the lives of widow Aurora Greenaway (Shirley MacLaine) and her daughter Emma (Debra Winger). Fiercely protected by Aurora throughout childhood, Emma runs into resistance from her mother when she marries wishy-washy college teacher Flap (Jeff Daniels). Aurora is even more put out at the prospect of being a grandmother, though she grows a lot fonder of her three grand-kids than she does of her son-in-law. Flap proves that Aurora's instincts were on target when he enters into an affair with a student (Kate Charleson). Meanwhile, Emma finds romantic consolation with an unhappily married banker (played by John Lithgow, who registers well in a rare "nice guy" performance). As for Aurora, she is ardently pursued by her next-door neighbor, boisterous astronaut Garrett Breedlove (Jack Nicholson). After 75 minutes or so of pursuing an episodic, semi-comic plot line, the film abruptly shifts moods when Emma discovers that she has terminal cancer. Terms of Endearment won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay for TV veteran James L. Brooks making his first feature film, Best Actress for MacLaine, and Best Supporting Actor for Nicholson. It was followed by a sequel, The Evening Star (1996), which again featured MacLaine as Aurora.

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Shirley MacLaine
as Aurora Greenway
Debra Winger
as Emma Horton
Jack Nicholson
as Garrett Breedlove
Jeff Daniels
as Flap Horton
Danny DeVito
as Vernon Dahlart
John Lithgow
as Sam Burns
Lisa Hart Carroll
as Patsy Clark
Megan Morris
as Melanie
Troy Bishop
as Tommy Horton
Shane Serwin
as Young Tommy Horton
Jennifer Josey
as Young Emma Greenway
Tara Yeakey
as Baby Melanie
Norman Bennett
as Edward Johnson
Tom Wees
as Dr. Budge
Paul Menzel
as Dr. Maise
Buddy Gilbert
as Dr. Ratcher
Charles Beall
as Rudyard's Employer
Judith A. Dickerson
as Checkout Girl
Dana Vance
as Victoria
Nancy Mette
as Woman at Party
Lear Levin
as Jack Stern
Lanier Whilden
as Patsy's Mother
Helen Stauffer
as Flap's Secretary
John C. Conger
as Moving Man
Sandra Newkirk
as Mrs. Johnson
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Critic Reviews for Terms of Endearment

All Critics (43) | Top Critics (9)

  • Terms of Endearment is that uncommon kind of American movie, the kind that doesn't just manipulate our feelings, but releases them.

    Apr 26, 2018 | Full Review…

    Jay Carr

    Boston Globe
    Top Critic
  • It takes all of perhaps five minutes to fall in love with the leading characters in Terms of Endearment and from that point on, the audience is just putty in the extremely capable hands of writer-director James L. Brooks.

    Feb 22, 2015 | Full Review…
  • Terms of Endearment is about three relationships and students of screenwriting would do well to study the way in which these three stories are told completely and effortlessly in a movie of average length.

    Jan 18, 2013 | Rating: 4/4 | Full Review…
  • Its quirky rhythms and veering emotional tones are very much its own, and they owe less to movie tradition than they do to a sense of how the law of unintended consequences pushes us ceaselessly through the years, permitting no pause for perspective.

    Feb 20, 2009 | Full Review…
  • Brooks' dialog is wonderful throughout and all the characters carry off their assignments beautifully, even down to Danny De Vito and Norman Bennett as MacLaine's other suffering suitors.

    Feb 20, 2008 | Full Review…

    James Harwood

    Top Critic
  • [Writer-director James L. Brooks] has television in his soul: his people are incredibly tiny (most are defined by a single stroke of obsessive behavior), and he chokes out his narrative in ten-minute chunks, separated by aching lacunae.

    Dec 17, 2006 | Full Review…

Audience Reviews for Terms of Endearment

  • Aug 05, 2014
    Before there was "As Good as It Gets", there was... "As Good as It Gets". James L. Brooke's always had this formula, even with this, his first film, so I guess he sure does love himself some romantic dramedies, which is cool, because he really knows how to make an uncommonly good one that will boom at the Oscars: just convince Jack Nicholson to be involved. Don't tell me that his name didn't play some part in getting this film eleven Oscar nominations, with five wins, including Best Picture, because as good as this film is, come on, it's still a rom-com. I'd imagine the main reason why Nicholson got involved was to prove that he hasn't been old for quite as long as Shirley MacLaine, as it's a little hard to believe that someone is, in fact, older than Jack Nicholson, even from where people were standing back in '83... as in 1983, not Nicholson's age at that time. His plan sort of backfired, because MaClaine looked pretty good back when she was 92-96, or however old she was when they finished this film. Man, maybe the critics liked this film so much because if a romantic comedy-drama is going to be 131 minutes long, then it better be good. Well, sure enough, Brooks knew the terms of endearment when it comes to making film like that, and yet, there are some things to challenge your patience. The film's genuineness as a portrait on family dysfunction can be admired, and it can also be cursed for stressing the occasions in which that genuineness lapses, through melodramatics which may very well be rare, but are made so glaring by a certain sentimentality. James L. Brooks' direction is only sometimes short on realization in its juggling colorful fluff and touching dramatics, but when it does fall short, under the weight of abrasive direction and scoring, things really do cheese up more than they should in this generally refreshing romantic dramedy which still stands to be fresher. By transcending many rom-com-dram conventions, this film goes an almost great distance, ultimately held back a bit by its eventually succumbing to tropes which allow predictability to set in over a problematically lengthy course. I've joked and joked about it, but indeed, running 132 minutes, this film is too long, even to the point of being uneven, with time jumps and alternations between the leads' distinguished narratives, resulting in a sense of aimlessness, in spite of a sense of predictability. At the very least, the runtime just kind of wears you down after a while, as this film shouldn't be so long and predictable, largely because its story concept doesn't present enough material to sustain consistent momentum over the course of two hours and a quarter. Natural shortcomings threaten the reward value of this film as much as anything, and it's a miracle that the final product is able to stand its ground so solidly through all of the hiccups in inspiration and realization within dramatics, originality and pacing. Still, make no mistake, the final product rewards the patient, whose investment is shaken, partly because of the story concept, yet nevertheless well-secured, partly because of the story concept. This story concept doesn't carry much of a sense of consequence to warrant a runtime of 132 minutes, and the storytellers sometimes try to compensate through melodramatics, but this film wouldn't be so rewarding if it didn't carry plenty of conceptual value as a study, not so much on the romance that many might want you believe this film thrives on, on a mother and a daughter's rocky relationships with each other and other loved ones as they come to terms with who they are. James L. Brooks' direction does plenty of justice to this potential through plenty of taste that is unusually genuine for films of this type, for although Brooks can get rather carried away with his sentimentality, through tight scene staging, Brooks keeps entertainment value consistent, while a touching play on Michael Gore's score and certain other aspects prove to be truly resonant. The film ought to try ones patience, but more than that, it keeps things pretty fun, when it doesn't move, and for that, credit is due to Brooks' direction, and to the performers who Brooks works so well with. I'm not entirely on board with all of the awards being showered upon the leads of this film, as limited dramatic material means performances of limited impact, and yet, virtually everyone - particularly Shirley MacLain, Jack Nicholson and Debra Winger, Hollywood's loveliest voice (Sarcasm) - charms by his or her own right, and with chemistry, until hitting some powerful dramatic highlights. Again, the film is plenty of thorough entertainment value through and through, thanks to subtly colorful direction and a greatly colorful cast which charm and then touch in an almost remarkably clean and refreshing manner, and yet, that's not quite enough to have this film stand out as a romantic dramedy. Brooks' script impresses as much as anything, because even though it has its melodramatics, tropes and excesses, it has guts that are hard to come by in films like these, and it also has the sharpness to match ambition, with clever humor and memorable dialogue, punctuated by deeply human characterization that makes this heartfelt affair so immersive. Although there are missteps here and there throughout this film, it's never less than compelling, for it's never less than inspired breaking conventions as a film of its type enough to reward as a unique, entertaining and moving dramedy. When the terms are met, certain melodramatics and sentimentalities reflect conventions to a formulaic and overdrawn narrative of only so much weight to begin with, but the underwhelmingness that usually comes to films suffering from issues such as these is ultimately surpassed by the worthy themes, heartfelt direction, charismatic performances and effective writing that make James L. Brooks' "Terms of Endearment" an entertaining, often powerful, and rewarding breakthrough in dramatic-comedy films about romance and family dysfunction. 3/5 - Good
    Cameron J Super Reviewer
  • Jul 15, 2014
    A wonderful drama that finds a perfect balance between sweet, humorous and sad with sublime performances by the whole cast (mainly MacLaine and Nicholson), while the superb editing keeps the narrative always fluid as it spans several years in the lives of its characters.
    Carlos M Super Reviewer
  • Apr 29, 2014
    Shooting across the screen in a shot, Terms of Endearment was a must see in the 80s. Jack made it something even the guys wanted to see. It doesn't get a terrible lot of airplay these days but it is nonetheless worth catching due to strong performances by both Winger and MacLaine.
    John B Super Reviewer
  • Jan 06, 2013
    One of the classic melodramatic movies ever made, with wonderful performances and a fantastic script. I never really knew about director James L. Brooks, then I saw "Terms Of Endearment" and man he is something. Although Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger shine in their Oscar roles, it's Jack Nicholson who steals the entire movie, his comedic timing, acting chops and charisma makes this movie from great...to excellent. MacLaine and Winger have incredible chemistry and Nicholson and MacLaine have also great chemistry. Between the love story, the fighting, the humor and the tragedy in this movie, its a perfect drama movie about a mother who is trying to move on in life and make the best out of it, and her daughter who is also trying to live life happy with his husband and her kids then finding out she has cancer.
    Angel G Super Reviewer

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